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Dec. 8, 2010

by Matthew Wuest -

Dynamic defenseman Brendan Smith has ascended to the top of Red Wings Central's prospect ranking for the first time in his career.

Smith, who is off to an outstanding start in the American Hockey League with the Grand Rapids Griffins, edged past talented winger Tomas Tatar to seize the No. 1 spot on RWC's preliminary list for 2010-11.

The 6-foot-2 195-pounder is among the top-scoring AHL defensemen and rookies with six goals and nine assists for 15 points in 25 games.

"He has the upside to be a top-four defenseman in the NHL, a guy that can run the power play for you," said Griffins general manager Bob McNamara. "There's a ton of potential and a ton of upside there for him."

Smith was a Hobey Baker finalist after a sensational junior season with the Wisconsin Badgers in 2009-10. He's a great skater with dynamic offensive flair, but his defensive game has always been his Achilles heel.

With the Griffins, McNamara said that's been a "work in progress."

"There are occasions where he's a little risky on the offensive side, trying to do things he was able to do in college that he's not able to get away with here," McNamara said. "But all in all we've been real pleased. He plays a real hard, tough physical game and he brings offense to the table. He's kind of the complete package and he's dealing with the transition from amateur to pro."

Similar to Niklas Kronwall a half decade ago, it might not be long before Smith forces the Red Wings to make room for him on their roster. Red Wings GM Ken Holland has hinted it could be sooner than later.

"I think Brendan could play in the NHL right now," Holland told CanWest newspapers. "He could play 15 minutes (a night), but I'd rather he play 25-27 minutes in the minors, where he's on the ice all night long."

Here's a look at the rest of RWC's preliminary ranking.

2. LW Tomas Tatar (-1), Grand Rapids (AHL). Tatar hasn't dropped off, Smith has just climbed higher. He remains an outstanding prospect, and his seven-point AHL game served notice he's still on course to be a top-six forward.

3. LW Gustav Nyquist (+1), Maine (NCAA). Nyquist probably could be playing in the AHL right now, but the Red Wings are being patient and letting him get stronger and more pro-ready in college. Another top-six forward.

4. LW Jan Mursak (+1), Grand Rapids (AHL). He's almost as fast as Darren Helm and he's got a little more dangle. He kills penalties, does the dirty work along the boards, and could be an effective two-way NHLer next season.

5. G Thomas McCollum (+1), Grand Rapids (AHL). The disastrous rookie campaign that made you wonder why he was a first-round pick is a distant memory. He's put himself back on the map with a solid, confident game.

6. C Riley Sheahan (NR), Notre Dame (NCAA). His production is discouraging but we're willing to remain patient, for now. His numbers as an 18-year-old freshman were solid and his size and skill are a sought after combination.

7. C Calle Jarnkrok (NR), Brynas (SEL). Not to go overboard, but Henrik Zetterberg wasn't even playing in the Swedish Elite League at age 19 let alone establishing himself as a top scorer. Jarnkrok could be a home-run pick.

8. C Cory Emmerton (+3), Grand Rapids (AHL). Emmerton is producing more and continues to play a strong two-way game. He'll be on the bubble next season and needs to force his way on to the Red Wings' roster.

9. C/LW Joakim Andersson (-2), Grand Rapids (AHL). As a defensive forward, his game is measured in more than points, but one point isn't enough — even for him. If he doesn't pick it up, he'll further slide down the list.

10. D Brian Lashoff (–), Grand Rapids (AHL). Despite injuries and early-season struggles, Lashoff is already a solid AHLer whose rock-solid, pro-style game could make him an ideal third-pairing defenseman in the NHL.

11. LW Teemu Pulkkinen (NR), Jokerit (FIN). If injuries hadn't ravaged Pulkkinen's season in 2009-10, where would he have been drafted? Now healthy, he's living up to his reputation as a natural-born sniper at Finland's top level.

12. RW Mitchell Callahan (+6), Kelowna (WHL). Callahan has found a niche as an agitator/energizer and does the job as well as anyone. His breakthrough production in the WHL has made him the highest-rising prospect in the system.

13. C Landon Ferraro (-4), Everett (WHL). Simply put, more offense is expected from Ferraro. The Red Wings believe in him and have already signed him, but he's nowhere near the 37-goal man scouts saw in his draft year.

14. RW Andrej Nestrasil (-2), P.E.I. (QMJHL). While the rest of his draft class has signed with the Red Wings, Nestrasil keeps producing points. The big, lanky winger continues to show shades of a Tomas Kopecky-type game.

15. D Logan Pyett (-2), Grand Rapids (AHL). The mobile puck-mover is having a solid season on the farm. The Red Wings may have a few blueline openings next season, but Pyett needs to take another step to earn one of them.

16. D Adam Almqvist (-2), HV-71 (SEL). It's a little surprising Almqvist isn't producing more this season, but at the same time, he's averaging close to 20 minutes per night for a top team and is working on his all-around game.

17. D Max Nicastro (-1), Boston U. (NCAA). Nicastro is a similar prospect to Brian Lashoff who has started to develop a much-needed physical edge. He isn't producing much, though, and needs to show more two-way capability.

18. D Nick Jensen (+4), St. Cloud St. (NCAA). The Red Wings drafted him for his skating and those wheels have made him an instant hit as a freshman at St. Cloud State. Expect him to keep climbing this list.

19. C Brent Raedeke (-4), Grand Rapids (AHL). Coaches appreciate guys like Raedeke. He's a consistent, defensively-conscious center/winger who gives you everything he's got on every shift. There's a little Darren Helm to him.

20. G Petr Mrazek (NR), Ottawa (OHL). He's a dark-horse prospect who is emerging as one of the best goalies in the Ontario Hockey League. He could get a chance to start for the Czech Republic at the world junior championship.

21. C Louis-Marc Aubry (NR), Montreal (QMJHL). A big, rangy project who has already been signed to an entry-level contract.

22. D Gleason Fournier (-2), Rimouski (QMJHL). The Red Wings love blueliners who can skate and Fournier is among the best. He's already signed.

23. RW Trevor Parkes (NR), Montreal (QMJHL). Pro-style winger has had to earn everything he's gotten and is worth keeping an eye on.

24. C Willie Coetzee (-3), Grand Rapids (AHL). He's adjusting to the AHL but has an impressive skill-set and could break through at some point.

25. D Ben Marshall (NR), Omaha (USHL). A classic Red Wings "sleeper," the offensive-minded blueliner has adjusted nicely to the USHL.

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